Some herbal teas contain sleep-inducing ingredients such as valerian root.

Some herbal teas contain sleep-inducing ingredients such as valerian root.(MICHAEL DEUSON/PICTURE ARTS/CORBIS/VEER)With 54% of Americans experiencing restless nights at least a few times a week, sleep is a much sought-after commodity. But if you're like many people, you don't want to take prescription sleeping pills (with risks of side effects and dependence) if you don't have to.

Americans spend some $100 million a year on nonprescription sleep aids. In addition, more than 1.6 million Americans use complementary and alternative remedies, according to a 2006 government study. There's little doubt that for some people, these products can help. The real questions are how well and for how long?

If you haven't slept well in days but aren't ready to see a doctor, here are a few options.

  • Making lifestyle changes, such as avoiding caffeine after lunchtime and sticking to a bedtime schedule.
  • Taking a nonprescription sleep aid like Sominex and Unisom, or a nighttime pain relief formula such as Tylenol PM, for no more than two weeks.
  • Using alternative medicine, such as valerian root or the hormone melatonin.
  • Trying over-the-counter snoring aids to quiet your or your partner's disruptive buzzsaw.
  • Getting stress under control by keeping a worry journal.

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Many products out there promise a better night's sleep—nasal strips, throat sprays, aromatherapy, special pillows and mattresses—but there's little evidence that many of them work. "Sleep is the new sex," says Meir H. Kryger, MD, director of sleep research and education at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn. "It sells, and so airlines, hotels, spas, everyone is pushing sleep."

Be wary, Dr. Kryger warns. If a product isn't going to improve sleep for some common sense reason—such as making your environment darker, more comfortable, or more relaxing—it probably won't help you much. "I'd say 99% of the products being sold for sleep enhancement are a waste of money," he adds.

Every individual is different, so if you find a nonprescription remedy that works, stick with it. But don't rely on medication—even over-the-counter—for long-term treatment. If your sleep problems last more than a few weeks, talk with your doctor: You may need to consider underlying health issues or try prescription or behavioral treatment.